Skip to content

Zoning the past

Like most such laws, Oakland’s zoning ordinance is use-based: it defines different uses for different parcels. Neighborhoods are residential, major streets are commercial, downtown has separate office and commercial districts, and industrial uses are located away from residential areas. This is all based on the idea that some uses are inherently incompatible, and that residents will be protected from pollution (air, visual, noise) by being separated from their jobs.

However, Smart Growth is fundamentally at odds with this vision. Like the New Urbanists, who look at historic mixed-use districts for inspiration, Smart Growth advocates want to concentrate compatible uses with one another, reducing travel times, increasing transit use, and creating more vibrant neighborhood centers. The General Plan strongly endorses this approach, calling for mixed-use zoning along commercial corridors and transit hubs. Existing zoning is very, very far from implementing that vision.

The General Plan is right to call for concentrating development and creating mixed-use districts (even if its map is a bit unambitious). Wide streets like Telegraph need new, taller buildings to enclose the street and to provide modern, attractive retail spaces. But does it matter what’s going on in those buildings? If Oakland were to allow dense development along Telegraph, would it matter if one mid-rise were professional offices, and the one next door condos? Indeed, locating professional offices in the area will provide more of a mix of people (daytime workers and their clients), as well as producing tax revenue for the city. Just like Temescal residents have great transit commutes to job centers like the DTO, people living all over the East Bay will find it easy to get to Temescal to visit their shrink.

Not only does use-based zoning constrain the use of new development in ways that may be undesirable or arbitrary, it cannot account for a mix of uses within a building. The Conley Report shows that well-designed storefronts are a vital component of a successful retail district, and many similar design elements were adopted by staff in their (otherwise disastrous) Temescal zoning update proposal. So not only downtown, but also in the neighborhoods, it is important to have well-designed retail storefronts. But current zoning does not permit, even conditionally, ground-floor commercial uses for residential buildings (although R-50, Medium Density Residential, conditionally permits mining and quarrying on-site). Oakland has “overlay” zones that permit ground-floor uses, and of course the catch-all “bring it up to the General Plan” conditional use permit. But those slap-dash remedies just add complexity to what is already a byzantine process that is widely viewed as arbitrary.

Finally, there are enterprises that do not fit comfortably into traditional use categories. Is garment manufacturing an industrial or office use? What about Old Oakland’s fivetenstudio, which houses both a furniture gallery and architecture offices? How would the Rock Paper Scissors collective be categorized, or Godspeed? Beyond the inherently narrow and outdated approach of use-based zoning, other elements of zoning produce undesirable or unforeseeable outcomes. Those rules are minimum requirements, and their interaction with abstract FAR is unpredictable. These regulations are, to a greater or lesser degree, found in every type of zoning, and therefore constitute a distinct series of rules.

Open-space, parking, and set-back requirements are what I like to call “ahistorical zoning.” In the 1920s, apartment buildings were constructed up to the edges of their lots and generally did not contain courtyards, parking spaces or large lobbies. Now, buildings are required to be set back from the street and their neighbors by an arbitrary distance, and must include parking space and “open space” for their residents. At the very least, these regulations take up space. If a building is permitted 4.0 FAR, but has to have generous setbacks on three sides, at least one parking space per unit, and 200 feet of “open space” per unit, so much of the building is taken up by these minimums that the project swells in whichever direction it can to capture the allowable density. This requires architectural gymnastics and is difficult for neighbors to understand. It also encourages collecting parcels into one large development for maximum flexibility, leading to out-of-scale towers.


These rules are arbitrary and unnecessary. Why should the city tell me that I have to effectively rent or own 140 – 200 sf that are not in my own apartment? I don’t drive – why do I have to buy a parking space along with my condo? Why should all residential high-rises be covered in balconies? Why can’t buildings touch each other? Do people shun apartments constructed before those rules existed? Certainly not. In fact, the design section of the Conley Report calls for small, unassuming lobbies and for storefronts to be flush with the sidewalk.

Los Angeles recently overhauled its zoning rules to encourage high-rise construction around downtown, and the key element was eliminating open-space and setback requirements, because they are incompatible with high-density living. From the LA Times (via KnowledgePlex):

The new rules encourage developers to build high-rises without leaving space between the buildings, allow them to reduce the size of lobbies and other communal areas, let them build closer to sidewalks and make it legal to build extremely small units.

Regulations that take up space can produce unintended consequences, like oddly-shaped buildings, unbuildable lots, or projects visually larger than expected solely by FAR. Others are expensive and ahistorical, like parking requirements. Because these minimums, as well as FAR, are very abstract concepts that do not take into account the vagaries of each parcel, the public finds it very difficult to predict what shape development will take, and developers must rely on the arbitrary variance process.

In June, Oakland’s “interim zoning controls,” which effectively superceded the older zoning code with blanket yet conditional permission to construct mixed-use buildings and take advantage of increased density, expired. The Planning Department did not complete the Zoning Update (nine years after the General Plan was adopted), nor did they bring a temporary renewal of the ordinance to the City Council. Right now, Oakland has only the deeply flawed zoning ordinance discussed above. Because use-based zoning and 1960s design minimums are conceptually opposed to the General Plan’s urbanist, mixed-use vision, Oakland should scrap its zoning ordinance and start all over with a new paradigm, rather than adding further confusion with overlay zones and other patches.

Posted in citycouncil, oakland, planningcommission.

13 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Samuel says

    Very interesting artical. Thanks

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Ron Dellums's plan for 10,000 jobs on the army base | A Better Oakland linked to this post on October 15, 2007

    [...] Also, what is this “citywide zoning plan”? Something other than the General Plan? Does he want to throw everything out and start over? (Because if he does, I’m all for it. dto510 has written well recently about how backwards our zoning is. [...]

  2. New zoning, same as the old zoning (2) « FutureOakland linked to this post on October 25, 2007

    [...] Shaping a city « Zoning the past Army base agreement? » New zoning, same as the old zoning (2) October 18th, 2007 [...]

  3. New Century, New Zoning « FutureOakland linked to this post on November 1, 2007

    [...] studies in Temescal. But the issue isn’t traffic, the issue is the complexity of translating outdated 1960s zoning into something that makes sense [...]

  4. Oakland City Council agenda exemplifies disfunctional city government | A Better Oakland linked to this post on November 6, 2007

    [...] Plan, not extend the interim controls indefinitely while they pile on endless overlays. See dto’s series of blogs on [...]

  5. Zoning direction tonight? « FutureOakland linked to this post on November 6, 2007

    [...] based on the LUTE, I’ve written a series of blogs explaining the planning process and the zoning ordinance. Oakland’s zoning is overly complicated and hopelessly outdated, and, as the LUTE directs, [...]

  6. City kills all development for four months « FutureOakland linked to this post on November 8, 2007

    [...] I wrote a series of blogs explaining how Oakland is planned, what our zoning code is, and how it is incompatible with the city’s 1998 General Plan. Without a new zoning ordinance, [...]

  7. Creekside EIR Scoping Session Tonight | A Better Oakland linked to this post on January 9, 2008

    [...] weren’t already convinced that the zoning in this city (and particularly in Temescal) is a complete mess and needs to be totally thrown out, check this out. The site falls into two different zoning [...]

  8. Ron Dellums State of the City address | A Better Oakland linked to this post on January 16, 2008

    [...] or less true. dto510 has written a bunch of good blogs about Oakland’s zoning issues if you’re [...]

  9. Open space versus housing, but not the way you’d think « FutureOakland linked to this post on March 4, 2008

    [...] area” to meet the city’s requirement. But what is the value of indoor open-space? As I have written before, I find newly-built private open space of dubious value in a city replete with beautiful (or [...]

  10. General Plan 101 | A Better Oakland linked to this post on March 13, 2008

    [...] now getting around to making the zoning conform to it. (dto has written some excellent posts about Oakland’s [...]

  11. An alternative CBD zoning update | A Better Oakland linked to this post on July 16, 2008

    [...] feature minimal regulation and maximum flexibility. The current proposal approaches zoning from an antiquated perspective, but I think a more fundamental problem is that it treats downtown like a regular neighborhood. [...]

  12. Oakland Zoning Update: Used to be uses | A Better Oakland linked to this post on June 2, 2009

    [...] on zoning. In general, Oakland has too many zones, and their regulations are, to put it kindly, archaic. The City is currently undergoing a lengthy process that will update and consolidate our [...]